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Online racism: Law targets racism on social networking sites

A spate of recent cases has highlighted the disturbing amount of racism on social networking sites such as Twitter, prompting celebrities and footballers to quit the medium and sparking a debate on how racism can be tackled online.

Recent cases include that of a student who was jailed after posting a racist comment about the collapsed Bolton midfielder, Fabrice Muamba. Another similar case involved a student at Newcastle University. Joshua Cryer, 21, admitted using the social networking site to post racist abuse about the former Liverpool striker, Stan Collymore.

The Crown Prosecution Service is using a variety of laws to bring these foul-mouthed bigots to justice. Joshua Cryer was charged under section 127 of the Communications Act, for sending grossly offensive messages, including racist taunts, to Collymore. He was sentenced to a two-year community order, 240 hours community service and ordered to pay £150 costs.

The case concerning Fabrice Muamba was perhaps even more striking given the condition of the Bolton midfielder and the public outpouring of support for him and his family. Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old Biology student at Swansea University was charged with making racially aggravated comments about him as he lay fighting for his life. He is due for sentencing this week, and has been warned that he could face a custodial sentence for his remarks.

Prosecutors are keen to ensure that events which take place online are treated with the same force as those which occur in public. Legal action is easier to pursue as online accounts can be traced, and evidence is automatically held on servers. Faced with this, offenders usually plead guilty, avoiding any significant police involvement with the case.

Wendy Williams is the head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-east.

"In recent months we have seen a number of similar cases in the north-east, in which people have been racially abused through social networking sites. Ironically, the strongest evidence in each of these cases has been directly provided by the defendants themselves," she said.

"When a person makes such comments digitally, they effectively hand police and prosecutors much of the evidence needed to build a robust case against them," she added.

Related links:

Racist Tweeter Sentenced (The Crown Prosecution Service)

What is hate crime? (FindLaw)

Find a solicitor near you (Findlaw)